On Comments and Community: A New Plan?

By James Fallows

(See update below.)  If you're at all interested in the pluses and minuses of the kinds of discussion the internet makes possible, please read Alexis Madrigal's account, this evening, of the handling of comments on Jaron Lanier's Atlantic essay about Wikileaks. While you're at it, check out Lanier's piece too.

This seems an occasion to re-state something I've said periodically (but not for a while), and also to say something new.

The familiar theme: why I don't have comments on this site. Here's the train of logic.

1) Unless a comment stream is actively moderated, it inevitably is ruined by bullies, hotheads, and trolls. If you feel otherwise, fine. This is what I think.
    Corollary: The comment-communities that flourish, notably the Golden Horde of TN Coates, require real-time, frequent intervention by a moderator not afraid to put his stamp on the discussion.

2) I am unwilling, or afraid, to commit the ongoing attention necessary to be a real-time moderator of comments on this site. I am often away from the web world for a couple of days running, for instance the past 36 hours. That is a long enough time for things to go wrong and people's feelings to get bruised. Also, although I tremendously value the connections I've made and stimulation I've received via Atlantic.com, I think of magazine and book writing as my "real" work and need to give them attention-precedence.

3) So instead I try as much as I can to republish comments I get from readers, and do so almost every day. Generally this does more to advance the discussion than what I originally said.

I'm comfortable with those three points. But recently another factor has come up:

4) For reasons of scale, I often get more interesting mail than I can republish or handle in a timely manner. That's true right now on a number of topics people have written in about. I feel guilty about not sharing it, but there are only so many hours.  Therefore, I am considering briefly considered:

5) Seeing whether our web system allows the version of moderated comments that would suit my schedule. In this model (unlike TNC's) comments would be unpublished by default and would pile up in a queue. Then I could look at them when I had time, press OK or DEL, and then have them appear as comments queue or as a new "readers' views" post. This is hardly a new model -- lots of sites use it. It's not normal for the Atlantic, though. So I will see whether our system can accommodate it. Possible payoff: having some of the vitality that a comments-community can create, plus sharing more of the interesting dispatches I don't find the time or mind-space to re-package as new posts. Possible drawbacks: maybe it's not technically feasible, and it could turn out to be too cumbersome and untimely to make work. We'll see.

For the moment, heartfelt thanks to those who share their views, assents, dissents, and elaborations, and our appreciation for your interest in the Atlantic's site.

UPDATE: On a few minutes' reflection, this too would be a larger commitment than I can take on. Never mind! Another sign that it's time to bear down on "real" work.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/12/on-comments-and-community-a-new-plan/68392/